We're in the middle of debate season in the United States. To political junkies, it's must-see TV. And no matter what happens, we talk about them for days and days. There's endless analysis of who won and who lost. Who had the best one-liners. Who connected with voters.
I was surprised that after the first debate there was so much comment on the debate format. I thought that was a topic only Canadians obsessed on.
The Americans tried a new format for the first presidential debate. It was designed to allow the candidates as much back-and-forth debate as possible, without interruption by the moderator. So there were six segments over the 90 minutes. Each segment started with a question and each candidate had two minutes to answer. Then there was nine minutes of free debate.
A simple recipe for success. But what happened?
There was a barrage of complaints, most arguing that the debate flew out of control. That the moderator, Jim Lehrer, had asked wobbly questions, and didn't step in to keep the candidates on topic.
It wasn't unanimous, but Rachel Maddow on MSNBC seemed to speak for the majority when she declared, " I feel this debate format died a very painful death on camera tonight."
Seriously? The format was a problem?
How could they mess that up in the U.S.?
The American debate organizers have it much easier than we do in Canada. They have only two major candidates. (I know there have been years when a third candidate was allowed to debate - John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 - but that's the exception.) A classic debate has just two sides. So the Americans have the basic ingredient made-to-measure.
We never have just two parties to consider. From the beginning of televised debates in Canada in 1968, we've always had four or five parties with legitimate claim to a spot.
How do you have a real debate with so many sides to accommodate?
Heaven knows we try.Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff go head-to-head in the 2011 federal election debates. (Reuters)
In 2004, we had a loud, everyone-talking-at-once debate. So for the 2006 election, the debate format ensured that only one person could speak at a time. The result was two hours of short speeches from the leaders. Positions were clear, but no one was allowed to challenge anyone, and there wasn't even the possibility of confrontation. The unanimous verdict was that the debate was boring.
Trying to avoid that in 2008, the format disposed of standing behind lecterns and instead the leaders sat around a table to discuss the issues. Again, it was orderly and reasonably coherent, but to many people it didn't look like a debate. And again, there was no one-on-one showdown.
Last year's debate format was a bit of a hybrid. The leaders were standing behind lecterns again. There was open debate among four leaders. But there was also time put aside for one-on-one debate.
And that last part was the big sell. There had been widespread clamouring to see the top contenders go head-to-head. Even the Prime Minister had been demanding it. When the networks hammered out a format with the parties that achieved that goal every media report led with the news that Stephen Harper would have a one-on-one debate with Michael Ignatieff.
Who knew that Jack Layton would be the man to watch?
I've never moderated a federal election debate. And I've never been in the room when the rules were negotiated. And I've been as disappointed as anyone else when a debate leaves me asking, "what was that?"
But I appreciate it's a delicate balancing act.
I know that in 2011, there were plenty of smart people who would have settled for a Harper - Ignatieff debate without anyone else at all. How would that look in retrospect?
I'll be watching the rest of the U.S. debates. Two candidates in each debate. The format barely matters.